Southern Illinois religious groups, leaders weigh future of worship in pandemic world

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CARBONDALE — Sunlight falls on empty chairs in a silent Bethel AME Church as Pastor Ronald Chambers walks down the center aisle toward the pulpit. The church has not held an in-person service in weeks due to restrictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but he remains hopeful his services can return to “normal” as soon as possible.

While the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted virtually every aspect of life, there are few places where the shift is more apparent than houses of worship. In-person services, Bible classes and Sunday school have been canceled or moved online. Weddings have been rescheduled or turned to backyard affairs. Funerals have been delayed. Countless rituals and rhythms have been interrupted, through Easter, Passover and other holidays.

The challenges are especially pronounced in Illinois, which now has one of the strictest stay-at-home orders in the country, and where the ongoing limits have sparked politically-charged protests and debate around the state. For religious leaders and the faithful, the distinction has brought a mix of frustration and anxiety at a time when congregants are hungry for hope about what’s ahead — and eager for life to regain its patterns and traditions.

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State Rep. Terri Bryant, R-Murphysboro, speaks on the House floor in May of 2018.

Terri Bryant, a Republican state representative in the 115th District and a parishioner of Grand Avenue Christian Church in Carbondale, has vocally advocated for the reopening of places of worship after executive orders from Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker barred large gatherings — including those affiliated with religious groups — in attempts to stymie the spread of the virus.

Bryant and other worshippers across the state claim the governor’s mandates are flawed and fail to recognize the intricacies and precautions each faith group is taking. 

“As state representative, I take an oath of office to uphold both the United States and Illinois constitutions. I cannot both comply with my oath and your phase-in plan,” Bryant wrote in a May 6 letter to Pritzker. “I strongly believe your powers cannot supersede my right as an American citizen to gather peacefully with fellow believers to freely worship and exercise my religion.” 

Bryant said there were multiple conversations with the Pritzker administration about “being reasonable” with the phased approach, but it became “evident that any congregate meeting whether it is church, or a concert, or schools even — you are not going to have any more than 49 people until you reach Phase 5," in which a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19 is readily available. 

“For SARS a few years ago, they were right on the verge, within days they thought, on having a SARS vaccine and then it kind of just fell off because the virus mutates or whatever happens,” Bryant said. “We’re years down the road now and we still don’t have a SARS vaccine. So it’s possible that under the phases, we could never go to Phase 5.” 

Experts say SARS-CoV-1, or the “SARS” virus, was more aggressive and lethal than SARS-CoV-2, or “COVID-19.” However, COVID-19 spreads faster — and sometimes by people who don't have symptoms. That means potential spread is greatly increased compared to SARS, according to Marilyn J. Roossinck, a professor of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology at Pennsylvania State University.

Roossinck writes one of the largest differences between the two is based on contact tracing — or attempting to find out who was exposed to someone infected with the virus. With SARS, it was “relatively easy” because “everyone had severe symptoms in two to three days.” 

With COVID-19, it can take two weeks for symptoms to appear, and there are many who don’t have symptoms at all. In regard to SARS vaccines, “no human studies were done, nor were the vaccine studies taken further because the virus disappeared.” 

Mounting frustration

Last weekend, protesters held a rally in Springfield against the stay-at-home order, with some holding signs with Nazi images. In response, Springfield Bishop Thomas John Paprocki said on Twitter: “Protesters should make their arguments on the merits, not with offensive slurs. Anti-Semitism and Nazi slogans and swastikas are contrary to the love taught by Jesus Christ and should have no place here in the Land of Lincoln.”

Bryant denounced the protestors displaying anti-Semitic messages at the Capitol. 

“You will not ever see me in unison with someone who calls themselves a Christian and is holding up swastikas,” she said. “That is not a reasonable way to get your message across.”

Meanwhile, other states have reopened operations in various phases, creating a patchwork of policies as stay-at-home orders are relaxed. 

Vice President Mike Pence met with faith leaders in Iowa in mid-May, saying ending religious services to address COVID-19 has “been a burden” for congregants. New York also will allow religious gatherings of up to 10 people as COVID-19 patient rates decline. In California, the first state to issue a mandatory stay-at-home order, about 1,200 pastors have signed a letter vowing to hold in-person services on May 31 — Pentecost Sunday. 

Some churches throughout Illinois began holding in-person services this month, in defiance of the governor’s executive order that limits gatherings to 10 or fewer people in order to stem the spread of COVID-19. Enforcement of that order is left to local law enforcement agencies, however, and many have declined to get involved, saying the governor’s order isn’t law. 

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said fines will be imposed on several churches that violated the rules despite warnings. Northwest Bible Baptist in Elgin had announced plans to reopen and scan temperatures and buy protective equipment, but the plan was canceled after local authorities raised questions.

The church’s preparations were “more than what they’d had to do if they were at Home Depot or Lowe’s or Walmart,” said Jeremy Dys, a counsel at First Liberty Institute, the legal nonprofit representing the church. “Somehow people going to church are incapable, it’s insinuated, of safely gathering.”

Bryant shared similar frustrations with the governor’s plan and lack of clarity within the guidelines given by the state as it relates to places of worship. She said the faithful need to remember scripture that says to “respect the authority over us” while also hoping consideration is taken to balance it with “God’s authority.” 

After consulting with religious groups across Southern Illinois, Bryant put together "faith-based guidelines" on how to safely reopen churches in phases while taking multiple precautions and following public health guidelines. She said her plan was relayed to the governor’s office — but fell on deaf ears.

“I’m prepared to attend an in-service meeting and if authorities come to make arrests for those who are there safely social distancing, wearing their face masks, if they still want to come and arrest people, I’m prepared to peacefully meet them at the door with my hands behind my back and get arrested,” Bryant said. “Not everyone feels that way. Everyone needs to examine their own heart and their own walk. I don’t judge someone else for wanting to approach it differently.” 

State Sen. Bill Cunningham, D-Chicago, co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, said during Wednesday’s news briefing the efforts to fine businesses for defying the governor’s orders do not include efforts to arrest anyone or taking them to jail for violating the executive orders. 

“So we want to clarify that (arrest) is not part of our effort, that if there is any sanction in place, it would not be anything beyond a fine that would be adjudicated in the civil court system or through some administrative system and not through the criminal courts,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say we would like to do it with a soft touch.”

When asked about the lack of clarity in his "exercise of religion" rule during Wednesday’s briefing, Pritzker said he has been looking at ways to reopen places of worship safely. 

“As you know, the Catholic church came out with a plan (...) and each one of the faiths have come forward, at least a number of them have, to ask ‘how could we do it safely’ and to put forward their ideas for getting it done,” Pritzker said. “We’re trying to work through all of those, because as you know, each building, each situation is slightly different. But what we did want to do was to make sure that people understood outdoor is much easier.”

The governor urged faith leaders to remember that the order is temporary and aimed at keeping parishioners safe. 

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker answers reporters’ questions during a daily COVID-19 briefing Friday in his office at the Capitol in Springfield.

“We’re not stopping you from praying. We’re not stopping you from connecting with your parishioners,” Prtizker said in early May. “What we are trying to stop is the spread of this invisible killer."

President Donald Trump weighed in on the remaining restrictions Friday, calling houses of worship "essential." He said governors need to let them operate starting this weekend and threatened to "override" ones who don't, although he didn't specify what authority he has.

Pritzker, who has been critical of the Trump administration's response to COVID-19, during a news conference later Friday did not indicate he would be changing his plans.

“We’re going to continue to operate on the basis of science and data,” Pritzker said in Springfield. “I’m as anxious as anybody to make sure that our churches or mosques or synagogues open back to where they were before COVID-19 came along. We’re gradually moving in that direction, but there’s no doubt, the most important thing is we do not want parishioners to get ill.”

Finding common ground

On Wednesday, protesters gathered again in Springfield on the first day of the spring legislative session, with some holding "Church is Essential" signs. Cheryl Armstrong held a sign imploring the governor to open the state's churches, like the Vineyard Church of Central, where she attends services in Sullivan.

Armstrong believed churches could open safely now "but they're not going to do that because they're abiding by false rules and laws for the protection of their people."

"I believe God is all powerful and the one who can heal everything," she added. "God is the one who gave scientists the ideas of science. He's the God of healing, miraculous healings."

Bryant said she acknowledges there are people who are still contracting COVID-19 and dying, but there’s “going to still be an argument that no matter what we do that is going to continue to happen.” She said if she needs to wear a mask to attend church to make fellow parishioners feel safer, she will do so “not because my government told me to but because Jesus Christ asked me to be a humble follower of his.” 

Bryant adds that there is a “fine line” between how far churchgoers are willing to comply with government orders while being respectful to the people around you “who don’t feel that same love for Jesus Christ” and asks “how long does everyone honor and respect those around us if they are not also respecting what our needs are?”

The representative said she believes solutions can be found to these issues “if all parties are willing to listen” and “not speaking over each other.” Bryant said she wishes the governor would have reached out to faith leaders from around the state before putting forward his rules.

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Ronald Chambers, pastor at Bethel AME Church, poses for a portrait on Wednesday, May 20, 2020, at his church in Carbondale. 

Despite the outcry to reopen places of worship, some in the faith community have said they would rather wait to reopen their doors to protect the health of their parishioners. Chambers, of Carbondale's Bethel AME Church, said he feels like it is “selfish” to bring people together at this time. 

“I understand that we demonstrate our faith by doing these types of things, but the point of this is this can be a life or death situation,” Chambers said. “If someone gets sick, God knows I wouldn’t want that to happen to anybody.” 

Chambers said “prayer works” and he believes in “the power and presence of God in our lives,” but hopes faith groups will consider their entire congregations and communities before going and packing churches. 

“We have to be mindful of other people who come in our congregation,” Chambers said. “God will help us and cover us and protect us; but at the same time let us not be foolish.” 

Scott Martin, a member of the Baha’i faith from Murphysboro, said these times are a test in patience for faith communities. 

“Many faiths have gone through much more difficult things than staying home for a while and being apart from one another,” Martin said. “This is our opportunity to show patience and show others who maybe are less patient what it’s like.” 

Martin said most faith communities believe that people are spiritual and not materialistic when it comes to faith, and now that people are “being deprived of that” one must “look within ourselves.” He said, as a society, we have to be able to learn how to accept minor inconveniences amid the other pressing issues in the world.

Bryant said there is a way to find a reasonable middle ground between faith groups and the state government where they can worship and keep the public safe. Houses of worship across the region have asked themselves the same question — how do they keep their parishioners safe and continue providing spiritual fulfillment?

Adapting to a ‘new normal’

While some houses of worship have started to reopen, most are continuing to follow the rules. Across all faiths, online services have replaced in-person ones. 

The Central Illinois Mosque & Islamic Center in Urbana, for example, is holding a “Virtual Eid Prayer” on Sunday to recognize the end of fasting for Ramadan.

Some have started to gather congregants in cars, including drive-thru Communion offerings. Still others have found ways to gather in groups of 10 or fewer.

As the pandemic forces congregations to separate, it also brings struggles that cause many to long for the comfort of their “church families.” Lost jobs or wages, delayed medical procedures, canceled travel plans, isolation from friends and family — all would be easier to face with others nearby, laughing and hugging and lifting their voices in songs about salvation and gratitude. 

Bethel AME Church in Carbondale has embraced the use of technology within their church, but going to full virtual worship has posed some unique challenges. Chambers said he first attempted to use a conference call to connect with the church’s parishioners but as the numbers grew on the call, it quickly dropped. They have since moved to using Zoom — a video conference software that has grown in popularity since the pandemic started — to deliver his Sunday sermons as well as calling parishioners throughout the week. 

“It’s been working pretty good, but we’re missing each other,” Chambers said. “Just the phone calls from each other kind of helps — especially with morale. We’re trying to hold on and see what we’re doing next.” 

Looking to the future, Chambers said if a plan is reached to where he can safely reopen his church, there would be social distancing, face masks and hand washing required, but said he believes the “abnormal is going to become the new normal” and technology will be the main supporter for Bethel AME’s services until further guidance comes forward from the state. 

Congregation Beth Jacob, a Jewish faith group in Carbondale, has moved to the lighting of their Friday night Shabbat candles on Zoom, said Jack Wides, a member of the congregation.

Wides said the group, which is made up of about 30 member families from the region, hasn’t been able to meet to break bread or have a meal since the pandemic has started. “That’s really all we’re doing — some Zoom lighting the candles — but there’s no sermons, no ceremonies, no regular service,” he said. 

Illinois Catholic leaders last week announced plans to begin phasing in some public events, starting with small groups for baptisms, weddings, funerals and confession. The plans include a phased approach on events held, the amount of parishioners in a church, training of volunteers by webinar and random checks to make sure churches are abiding by the plan. 

Martin, who also serves as the president of the Carbondale Interfaith Council, said the group of about 25 members of various faith communities, which typically meets monthly, moved its gatherings to Zoom back in March. While the pandemic may present challenges to faith communities, he said many have stayed optimistic.

“We can look and say ‘we’ve been given lemons’ and we can sit and complain and say ‘I want apples’ or we can say ‘let’s make some lemonade out of them’ and I think that’s what a lot of us are trying to do,” Martin said. 

Pritzker said last week that all regions of the state are on track to enter Phase 3 on May 29. The loosened restrictions allow for restaurants to have outdoor dining, salons and barber shops to resume operation, and all state parks to reopen. 

The next phase after that would allow gatherings up to 50 people. Progress between phases is determined by several factors, including infection rates, hospitalizations and demand for beds in intensive care units. 

But it remains unclear when larger congregations will be able to pack the pews. No one knows when a vaccine or effective treatment might become widely available, or when a sustained lack of cases could occur. 

Chambers remains unsure if he’ll open his church back up in the near future, but said no matter where his congregation is or how services are held, they will all still be one church family. 

“If we never came back to the physical church building — we are the church,” Chambers said. “I believe there is an opportunity where (...) we can begin the fellowship among one another and even the churches from different denominations can begin to come together and become the church in the world that God has intended it to be.” 

— The Decatur Herald and Review, The Associated Press and The State Journal-Register in Springfield contributed to this report.

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This article originally ran on thesouthern.com.

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